Economist slams autonomy bill: 'An illusion to fool unwary Tobagonians'

Tobago economist Dr Vanus James  -
Tobago economist Dr Vanus James -

KINNESHA GEORGE-HARRY and COREY CONNELLY

Economist Dr Vanus James has described the Draft Constitution Amendment Bill (Tobago Self Government Bill) as a "constitutional illusion."

James, a Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP) supporter, said the draft bill, currently made public by Parliament's Joint Select Committee for consideration, does not allow Tobagonians the equality they desire.

In a recent interview, James told Newsday the promises in the explanatory note, that Tobagonians will be able to make their own choices and manage their own affairs, are blocked by many specific provisions of the bill.

He said, “Indeed, the proposed Constitution Amendment Bill is a kind of constitutional illusion designed to fool the unwary Tobagonian into seeing two things that are not really there – equality of status and self-determination.”

James made it clear he was unimpressed with the bill.

“Who drafted this bill, anyway?”

He said the draft bill makes two bold promises: equality of status between the island of Tobago and the island of Trinidad within the unitary state of Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the right of the people of Tobago to determine, in Tobago, their political, economic, social and cultural development.

He added that it then proceeds to offer Tobagonians provisions to undermine that.

“The first is the absence of maritime boundaries that define the economic geography of Tobago and the jurisdiction of its laws. It proposes that a reference to Tobago means the Island of Tobago, Little Tobago, St Giles Island, Marble Island, Goat Island, Sisters Island and the internal and inland waters of Tobago.”

He said the the boundaries provided in the THA Act and previous versions of the the autonomy bill are all missing.

He said the boundaries of Tobago are critical to any credible conception of its equality of status and self-determination, yet the new proposals have been excluded.

PDP deputy political leader Farley Augustine -

“The exclusion means that it will be virtually impossible to define a credible formula in the Constitution that gives Tobago a predictable budget. Tobago’s budget will be forever determined by the whims and fancies of the Cabinet in Trinidad.

"The absence of boundaries means that the equality of status and self-determination offered are only a political mirage.”

The Tobago Island Administration Bill 2021, a companion legislation, proposes Tobago receive a minimum 6.8 per cent of the national budget.

James said the second example of a provision that undermines both the equality of status and self-determination is the proposed mediation committee. The bill proposes creating a five-member mediation committee, comprising the Prime Minister (chairman); two Cabinet members; the premier (vice chairman); and one person appointed from the Executive Council. The committee will mediate or mitigate any disputes that may arise over administrative powers.

“So here, the members of the mediation committee are the likely parties to the disputes (Cabinet and the Executive Council), the ones who are also responsible to trigger the disputes. This is quite odd in itself, as it is standard best practice for such disputes to be resolved by an impartial mediator (or team of mediators).

"However, that apart, a mediation committee dominated by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet destroys any semblance of equality of status of Tobago, or of determination in Tobago of its political, economic, social and cultural development."

He said even the current THA Act has a more balanced, impartial and quasi-judicial approach to the mediation process as it provides for a dispute resolution commission comprising the Ombudsman, or someone else with judicial or quasi-judicial experience agreed to by the Government and the THA, as chairman; and four other members, two appointed by the Government and two by the THA.

Augustine: It recolonises Tobago

PDP deputy political leader Farley Augustine believes the draft Tobago Internal Self-Government Bill and the Tobago Island Administration Bill recolonises the island.

He made the statement on Friday at the start of a two-day public consultation, hosted by the JSC, which reviewed both pieces of legislation.

The consultation was held at the Victor E Bruce Financial Complex, Scarborough.

JSC members Clarence Rambharat, Nigel De Freitas, Renuka Sagramsingh-Sooklal, Shamfa Cudjoe and Maria Dillon-Remy attended physically while the other members, including chairman Camille Robinson-Regis, appeared virtually.

Augustine, who led a team of five PDP assemblymen, excluding political leader Watson Duke, told members the party had discussed the draft bills with many people over the past few days.

Augustine said, “We have found that the consensus from the people we represent is that the bill – despite saying that it wishes to amend the Constitution to afford Tobago equality in status with Trinidad – we have found that the mechanisms that were placed within the Constitution Amendment (Tobago Self-Government) and the Tobago Bill does not, in fact, afford such equality in status,” he said.

“In fact, we have found that this bill all but recolonises Tobago.”

Clause Five of the Tobago Self-Government Bill states: “There shall be equality of status between the island of Trinidad and the island of Tobago within the sovereign democratic state of Trinidad and Tobago.”The first paragraph of the draft legislation also “confirms the recognition of the equality of status between the island of Tobago and the island of Trinidad within the unitary state of Trinidad and Tobago.”

According to Augustine, Cabinet, in the body of the legislation, still plays a major role in the decision-making process.

“There cannot be equality of status when the overreach of the Cabinet continues to be broad and even broader than it is now.”

Saying both documents “poorly and in some cases wrongly defines Tobago,” Augustine argued the bill also entrenches a governance structure and model that does not lend itself to full participatory democracy.

“In many ways what we see is an attempt, perhaps, to mirror some of what we already have in the national Parliament. But that does not allow for the kinds of oversight that Tobago wants.”

He added: “We must bear in mind that the very construct of the THA, with the Chief Secretary and secretaries, where we sit around a horse shoe and we have a minority (leader) as opposed to an Opposition Leader, is because Tobago, from the onset, has been deliberate in wanting something that is different and may at times not even represent the Westminster style of governance to its fullest.”

Augustine said there has historically been an “element of fear” on the part of the Government whenever discussions about Tobago’s autonomy arise.

“As a result, we find that the ultimate goal, which is to allow Tobago to reach its fullest potential in terms of economic, social, cultural… Tobago will not be able to reach its fullest potential.”

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"Economist slams autonomy bill: ‘An illusion to fool unwary Tobagonians’"

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